Have you ever rolled a giant snowball? You know, the kind you use as the base of a snowman? If the snow isn’t just right, sometimes you can’t even get it started. But when the conditions are perfect, you can roll one so big that it picks up everything in its path.
That’s how word-of-mouth marketing works. The toughest part is to get people talking at all. But once the conversation around your brand hits critical mass, consumers will basically do your marketing for you. Here’s how to get the ball rolling:
The late Steve Jobs was a master of word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing. But while Forbes contributor Panos Mourdoukoutas is right that Jobs fueled WOM with unique products, effective audience targeting and art-technology alignment, he forgot a critical component to Jobs’s WOM success: simplicity. Jobs made it as easy as possible for consumers to talk about Apple products.
iMac. iPad. iPhone. Not only do Apple’s most popular products have one-word names, but they all belong to the same naming scheme. It’s immediately obvious to the listener which company is responsible when they hear one of those words. Even Apple’s slogan — “Think Different” — is just two words. Consider how much clunkier the familiar idiom “Think Outside the Box” sounds in comparison. Jobs knew that the words of the word-of-mouth strategy have to fit organically into everyday conversation.
Before the ice bucket challenge in 2014, many of us had never heard of the ALS Association. What elevated the nonprofit’s profile was that it challenged social media users to do something that had nothing to do with ALS or charity. Instead of asking for donations, they asked people to pour a bucket of icy water onto their heads. Over an eight-week period, the campaign raised $115 million.
Why are competitions such an effective way to get the word out? Blame the bandwagon effect - the psychological pressure that leads people to do something predominantly because others are doing it. The bandwagon effect is so powerful that simply seeing polls indicating how others might vote can cause voters to change their choices.
Another way to leverage the bandwagon effect is to bring influencers into your marketing mix. Consider the boost Christine Andrew — a 30-something blogger with all of a million Instagram followers — gave to Nordstrom’s annual anniversary sale. Neither she nor Nordstrom would reveal more specific figures, but Andrew reportedly drove hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales to Nordstrom’s website in less than two weeks.
Andrew’s impact is no anomaly, according to TotalSocial’s Engagement Lab. The social data tool put Nordstrom in third place, behind only Amazon and Nike, among retail and apparel brands in terms of on- and offline conversations. What’s more, Nordstrom posted the highest online conversation score and ranked as the only company with a stronger online than offline score.
Even if you dislike ads, you can’t help but be pulled in by Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow.” The cinema-quality short features a scarecrow factory worker living in a dystopian world. One day, the scarecrow decides he’s fed up, abandons the factory, and starts his own fresh food operation. Although the short’s subject matter aligns with Chipotle’s brand, the association isn’t obvious until the last scene, which shows the fast-casual restaurant’s logo.
In less than two weeks, Chipotle’s story-driven short generated 6.5 million YouTube views. A related app quickly claimed the top spot in the App Store’s free category. Notably, Chipotle’s campaign involved no paid media during the first four weeks. Because Chipotle focused on the story first, it got social media users talking far more effectively than if it had spent the funds on Facebook ads.
Patagonia is unusual in its space for multiple reasons, but a big one is that it’s taken a hard line against traditional marketing tools like TV, radio, and print ads. And yet so many of us are familiar with the outdoor apparel brand, thanks, in large part, to the buzz it has generated for itself through corporate social responsibility initiatives.
When a brand only pays lip service to a cause, consumers can tell. Unlike many brands, Patagonia doesn’t shy away from actions that could upset its partners. Recently, for instance, it announced it will refuse to sell products to some corporate clients it considers to be bad environmental actors. Because it’s willing to take a stand, Patagonia has managed to build a multi-million dollar brand on WOM and customer loyalty alone.
Word-of-mouth might sound like a poor replacement for a multi-channel ad campaign, but it’s more powerful than you think. Once you get the ball rolling, your costs are next to zero. And as it picks up speed, you can count on it to smash through almost anything standing in your brand’s way.
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Erik Huberman is the founder and CEO of Hawke Media, and a digital marketing thought leader. Erik has earned prestigious honors and awards, including Forbes “30 Under 30”, Inc. Magazine’s “Top 25 Marketing Influencers”, and Influencive’s “Top Influencive Influencers of 2017”.